City leaders discuss homeless problem with residents

A file photo of the front of Hot Springs City Hall as seen from Convention Boulevard. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record
A file photo of the front of Hot Springs City Hall as seen from Convention Boulevard. - File photo by The Sentinel-Record

Removing panhandlers and homeless people from public rights of way isn't an option, the city says.

"Loitering doesn't really exist," Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough said earlier this month at the neighborhood meeting District 5 Director Karen Garcia held for residents of the Beverly Hills subdivision.

He was referring to a federal court's invalidation of the state loitering statute and the city's two attempts to outlaw panhandling. The Hot Springs Board of Directors repealed the 2016 ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from soliciting anything from motorists after the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sued the city on behalf of a man arrested for panhandling under the state's loitering statute in 2015.

A federal judge ruled the city's second attempt to regulate panhandling unduly burdened what courts have said is a constitutional right to beg. Preventing traffic hazards was the stated purpose of the 2017 ordinance, but the judge ruled the city singled out panhandlers and didn't address other pedestrian-vehicle interactions, such as those involving street maintenance or street crossings. The city had to pay ACLU of Arkansas $30,702 in attorneys fees.

City Attorney Brian Albright told the group having a resource center or shelter for homeless people would give the city some recourse to address loitering on public property.

"If you have enough beds for all these homeless people, then you can say they can't sleep in public, but until you have a shelter bed to take them to, you cannot remove them from the public," he said.

Albright was referring to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. Boise, Idaho, a 2018 ruling enjoining Boise from enforcing its anti-camping ordinances without providing shelter beds for people it removed from public rights of way. The precedent prevented the removal of a homeless man who was living outside Hot Springs City Hall for more than a week, the city said.

The city has considered using some of its $11.37 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation to build a resource center with 30 or more beds, but it's struggling to find an operator. The city said local nonprofits are reluctant to commit their resources given the lack of affordable housing in the area. The scarcity of reasonably priced housing would put people back on the street after they leave the resource center, the nonprofits have told the city.

Housing is one of five priorities the city board established for 2023. A $40,000 general fund budget adjustment the board adopted earlier this month will pay for an affordable housing strategy.

The city is soliciting proposals from groups interested in operating a resource center. Burrough said the city of Pine Bluff was recently told it would cost $600,000 a year to operate such a facility.

"What we see is a very large expense when it comes to operating those, and none of our nonprofits have those funds," he said. "There's not federal funds out there that are enough to do it, so we need a benefactor as well to try to cover some of those expenses."

Several residents of the subdivision said homeless people panhandle at the Central Avenue entrance to Cornerstone Market Place during the day and come into the neighborhood at night. Burrough said the city suspects a homeless camp has sprung up south of the neighborhood, near Files Cemetery.

Police Chief Chris Chapmond told the group people can be removed from private property and prosecuted under the state's criminal trespassing law.

"If it's on private property, we actually have a lot of leeway to address that, as long as we have your cooperation," he said. "Once you've told them not to be there, or it's posted and they know they shouldn't be there, we can address that."

Burrough told residents to call the police if they see unauthorized people on private property.

"If you see someone who is breaking the law, the number to call is 911," he said. "When they're in your backyard. When you see them trying to get into a home. When you see a crime being committed, don't call (Garcia). Call 911."

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